By DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer/BNC Contributor
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — With one swing met with silence, the PGA Tour got back to business Thursday at Colonial.
Ryan Palmer felt more nerves than usual when he stood over his first tee shot in the Charles Schwab Challenge the first official shot on the PGA Tour in 90 days, and even more bizarre was making a 10-foot birdie putt on the second hole with no one around to cheer.
The closest thing to a crowd was a few people who watched from behind hedges and a chain fence from a nearby street.
Phil Mickelson made one birdie and instinctively squeezed the bill of his cap to acknowledge a crowd that wasn’t there. Justin Thomas, playing in the afternoon, made birdie on the second hole and mockingly raised his putter in celebration.
Palmer seemed to speak for everyone when he said, “It was just great to be out there playing.”
Golf is the second major sport in the U.S., behind motor sports, to resume a schedule shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the safety measures are coronavirus tests for every player, caddie and essential personnel. Of the 487 tests at Colonial, the results were all negative.
“We’re all taking risks playing golf, obviously,” Palmer said. “Being back out here, everybody leaves the club, they’re going out to dinner and doing things, so everybody is taking that risk to be here. Everybody is pretty confident that we’re going to all be safe. I think everything has been done the right way.”
Some of the golf was pretty good, too.
Justin Rose, a winner at Colonial two years ago, opened with seven birdies in 12 holes before settling into a series of par for a 63 and the early lead. Tom Lehman even got in on the act at age 61, opening with a 65.
Dustin Johnson struggled to a 71.
But it was more about the scenery than the scores, and it was eerie.
Palmer was selected to hit the opening shot as a Colonial member who has raised money for pandemic relief through his “Pros for a Purpose” campaign. It was difficult to hear the starter announce his name from 40 feet away, not because the starter was wearing a mask but because the only other noise was the hum of a nearby generator.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan watched from the starter’s booth — a rarity for him to be on the first tee of any opening round — and gave Palmer, Brian Harman and Bill Haas a thumbs-up as they walked off the tee.
Monahan returned to the tee for the 8:46 a.m. starting time with no players’ names listed on the tee sheet. The tour kept that time open as a tribute to George Floyd, who was handcuffed while a white police officer pressed his knee to the back of the black man’s neck.
Floyd died after pleading for air, sparking worldwide outrage over racial injustice.
Everyone at Colonial — on the course, on the practice range — stopped for a moment of silence on a course that already was quiet without spectators.
That’s what stood out — no crowd, no grandstands, no tents, the typical structures that define a golf course. Harman said he had to back off a few putts because he was distracted by the sound of someone teeing off a few holes away.
“It felt strange, to be honest, just getting on the first tee and having your name called and not having anyone around to say anything,” Jhonattan Vegas said after his 64. “It felt like, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ It’s something we’re going to have to get used to for a little while. … We definitely miss the fans.”
They will be gone for the opening five tournaments as the tour takes a conservative return to golf, hopeful of no setbacks in the sport from a spike in the new coronavirus.
Monahan, asked Thursday morning what would constitute a successful tournament, said, “Getting to next week.”
For one round, and likely the rest of the week considering the bubble the tour has tried to create, it was a first step.
“I think just being out here is successful, to be honest with you, getting started,” Palmer said. “I don’t see anything holding us back. I think today was the biggest day, just getting this first day off. People are going to watch golf back home and be interested to watch it tomorrow, and that’s a great thing.”